How to cite: M. Jagadesh Kumar, “How does the power of “Suggestion” influence students’ performance?”,IETE Technical Review, Vol.30 (4), pp.273-275, July-August 2013.
As a professor in an institute of higher education, I believe that my primary role is to be a partner with my students to enhance their cognitive skills by creating an interactive teaching-learning atmosphere in the class room. When the students enter my class, they are already equipped with the lower order cognitive skills such as simple recall of facts or the ability to apply known theories to familiar situations. What they need to master are the higher order cognitive skills – ability to question, analyze and synthesize, problem solving capabilities and critical evaluative thinking including the application of known knowledge to unfamiliar situations [1,2]. While there are time tested techniques to improve these skills, we appear to have not paid any attention to the subtle and potent technique of “suggestion” in the classroom.
But what is a “suggestion”? How can suggestions to the students in the classroom influence their academic goals and change the outcome of their learning experience? Let me first give you some thought-provoking real life understandings of the power of “suggestion”.
In an experiment, three independent groups of people were asked to find an inverted ‘T’ buried in distractions [3,4]. Each group was asked to sniff a scented pad before starting their task. The first group was told that sniffing the scented cotton pad would improve their ability to recognize the inverted ‘T’. The second group was told that sniffing would hurt their performance in recognizing the inverted ‘T’. The third group was told that sniffing would have no effect on their performance. Surprisingly, the outcome was exactly similar to the “suggestions”. The first group found the inverted ‘T’ quickly compared to the second group which took a longer time. Perhaps it is the expectation of improved performance from the first group which led to this outcome. Such behavioral changes influenced by suggestions are called “response expectancies”. This experiment demonstrates that suggestions can, therefore, affect implicit learning abilities either in a useful or a detrimental manner.
Suggestions can also lead people to increase cognitive effort and increase memory performance. To accomplish different day-to-day activities, we often depend on our prospective memory – “the ability to remember to perform a future action” . Prospective memory tasks range from simple actions such as remembering to take a chalk to your classroom to important tasks such as ending your lecture on time. Let us examine another experiment where a group of people were given a sham drug and were told that it would improve their memory performance and the second group was also given the same sham drug but was not told about its effect . Interestingly, when they were asked to do some high intensity prospective memory tasks, the first group performed better than the second group. The mechanism of suggestion, tacitly employed in this case, did the trick in improving the performance of the first group.
How we respond to a medicine could be influenced by suggestions too . Patients who were given a muscle relaxant drug felt relaxed since they were told about it a priori. A different set of patients who were administered the same drug got tensed when they were told that the drug was a stimulant . In another situation, athletes ran faster when they were told that the drug they took would enhance their performance while in reality it was a fake drug .
There is reasonable research evidence now to show that “expectancies can directly alter our subjective experience of internal states” . As a result, we also modify our behavior to produce a particular outcome when we anticipate it. This is called Response Expectancy Theory [8,9]. What these studies tell us that while we may like to believe that “our thoughts and our behaviors are rationally constructed”, the research shows otherwise. Our thoughts and our behaviors are indeed influenced by all kinds of information — including the tacit suggestion and expectation .
As teaching professionals, it is worthwhile for us to stop and take a look at these findings so that they are given the importance they deserve. Can we do something differently in the classroom to see that our “suggestions”, either planned or unplanned, will lead to “response expectancies” which will moderate the teaching-learning outcomes of our students?
Our body language and the way we interact with our students in the classroom can often convey either unintentional or intentional suggestions to the students. When pedagogical approaches are changing and divergence among students’ background in a classroom is on an increase, as professors, we are likely to treat such situations as alien and refuse to adapt to the new reality. We do not like the prospect of ‘letting go of earlier, comfortable positions and encountering less familiar and sometimes disconcerting new territory’ . We have a propensity to stereotype students by complaining that their underperformance is either because they are not smart enough or they are not spending enough time in their academic pursuits. It is not uncommon to attribute the bad performance of students to their lack of interest in the subject instead of scrutinizing our own approach to teaching. In large classes, teaching often turns into professor centric, transforming the classroom into a place where the students are treated as subordinates with no freedom to express their opinions and concerns. As a result of this hostility and negative perceptions, the professor and the students assume adversarial roles rather than being partners. How sad! Sending these negative suggestions is bound to sway the students’ performance and hinder the completion of their academic milestones. What suggestive actions could be performed by a professor in a classroom or outside to minimize the intensification of stress and negative feelings among students? There are multiple ways of generating positive suggestions but I would like to draw your attention to only a few examples.
In a large class, it is not easy to interact with each student. However, once in a while, let us say the professor identifies a shy student and interacts with her while the rest of the class is watching them. Here the expectation of the professor is that the student comes out of the shell and engages with others unreservedly. This indirect suggestion would make the student to loosen up and socialize with the rest of the class freely over a period of time. If I were the student, I would have felt a positive impetus because the professor recognized my presence and gave me importance. In this example, what is suggestive, therefore, is the professor occasionally interacting with the students and making them feel special . This phenomenon is known as the Hawthorne effect  which says that if an individual is regarded as important in a group, it will lead to that person working harder and sticking to a task longer. The fact that suggestions positively affect the students’ abilities sounds intriguing but there is now growing research evidence to corroborate it [3, 12].
We frequently have to deal with students who are depressed about their academic performance. They continue to imagine that their academic performance is not going to become any better in spite of their best effort and conceal themselves in a spiral of depression. As their professor, it is certainly within our reach to use the power of suggestion to bring at least a few such students out of this “hopeless situation”. There is mounting evidence which confirms the fact that “suggestion is a central factor in treating depression” . When we interact with such students, if we are insensitive to their anxieties, we are bound to heighten their negative expectancies. Conversely, shouldn’t we try to bolster their self-worth and enhance their motivation to do well by suggesting to them realistic and non-hopeless alternate expectations? This will result in a “realistic hopefulness” and could alleviate their distress [13,14].
Individual differences in learning capabilities heighten the anxiety levels in students forcing them to retreat into a shell. They dedicate a significant amount of their intellectual resources in combating the intrusive negative thoughts and concerns . This will, in turn, result in their underperformance leading to even dropping out of a course. Professors should “suggest” to the students that they are mindful of this by designing evaluation procedures that will test not only the fast-thinking high-performance students but also slow learners.
The world we live in is ambiguous and indefinite. We often disambiguate the world that surrounds us by forming expectations. Our performance outcomes and experiences are, therefore, controlled by two factors – the suggestions we receive from different sources and the expectations that are built around these suggestions . As professors, we should take a lead in providing suggestions and helping students to form realistic expectations. Through the power of suggestion, if we could make the student understand that a realistic goal is more realizable, then the prospect of the student altering his approach to meet the expectation would be more. During our interactions with the students if we can convey the “suggestion” that they are matured and responsible individuals and that they are capable of doing well in their academic pursuits, it is bound to send a positive trigger enhancing their self-esteem. Playing this partnership role in assisting the students navigate through their learning process should be a natural ingredient of our discourse with the students.
Is anyone listening?
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